Fairphone 4 5G review: A sustainable smartphone for ethical consumers

You can get better specifications and performance for the price, but the Fairphone 4 5G offers an unrivalled combination of ethical sourcing, modular repairability and long-term software support.

Like

  • Ethical, sustainable principles
  • Modular hardware design
  • Physical SIM and eSIM – both 5G
  • Extended software support

Don't Like

  • On the large/heavy side
  • Cameras could be better
  • Pricey given the specifications

Most smartphones have a life of a couple of years before they start to feel long in the tooth. But in these days of environmental awareness, many feel that it's wasteful to junk a handset in favour of a completely new one when we could, in theory, take a more sustainable approach.  

That's the ethos behind Fairphone, which has been selling modular, self-repairable phones for years now. You may not get the latest and greatest technology, but you do get a phone that's much more sustainable than anything else on the market. And now, Fairphone 4 supports 5G.

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The modular 6.3-inch Fairphone 4 5G looks more like a regular smartphone than previous models, although it's a chunky 225g handset that's 10.5mm thick.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

There are two Fairphone 4 5G models available, and you buy direct. For £499/€579 (~$675) you get 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, while £569/€649 (~$755) buys you 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Both configurations are available in a chassis with either a grey, green or speckled green backplate. I was sent the 6GB/128GB grey option to review. I'd have loved to see the speckled green.

Fairphone supplies neither charger, earphones nor USB-C charge cable, although a 'long life' cable is available as an add-on for £31.95. Maybe this pricing is designed to discourage sales -- after all, many people already have USB-C charge cables, so why support the manufacture of yet another? Shipping is carbon neutral, as Fairphone offsets the carbon emissions associated with transportation. Only a selected range of European countries are served -- check the list here.

All of this emphasises that Fairphone isn't just about the handset itself. The whole ethic is around sustainability. Fairphones are made with up to 40% recycled plastics, the materials used in phones are sustainably sourced, and for every Fairphone 4 phone sold, Fairphone commits to recycling or refurbishing one device. There's a lot more depth on this and other initiatives at Fairphone's website.    

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You can replace the Fairphone 4's battery, rear cameras, selfie camera, USB-C port, speaker, earpiece, display and rear cover. You even get a scewdriver.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet  

I noted earlier that the Fairphone 4 5G is a modular, self-repairable handset. There is a screwdriver in the box for removing (and replacing) the modules. The various spare parts available at the time of writing are: battery (£25.95), rear cameras (£69.95), selfie camera (£25,95), USB-C port (£12.95), loudspeaker (£17.95), earpiece (£12.95). The display and back cover should also be available, but their prices were not listed at the time of writing. 

As part of the sustainability ethic, the Fairphone 4 5G comes with a five-year warranty against manufacturing defects, and while the small print understandably explains a range of exclusions, this is still a lot more cover than is available elsewhere. 

What you don't get with the Fairphone 4 5G is a sleek, svelte, up-to-the-minute handset. It's a chunky phone weighing 225g and is a generous 10.5mm thick, with height and width of 162mm and 75.5mm respectively. The plastic backplate affords some robustness and is not slippery like so many handsets. The phone meets the MIL-STD 810G drop test. It's also IP54 certified against dust and water ingress ('dust protected', 'splashing of water'). All this makes it feel a bit more like a 'rugged' phone. 

You only get the one SIM slot, but the handset can also accommodate an eSIM and both will support 5G. There is also a MicroSD card slot for boosting the on-board storage. My entry-level review unit had 128GB installed, of which 20GB was in use, leaving 108GB free. There's a fingerprint reader in the side-mounted power button. You can attach a headset via a USB-C cable or use Bluetooth, but there's no dedicated 3.5mm jack. 

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The Fairphone 4 5G has a side-mounted fingerprint reader, incorporated in the power button.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet    

The screen is a good size at 6.3 inches, with 1,080 x 2,340 pixels offering 410ppi pixel density. The top and bottom bezels are on the large side, and the IPS panel isn't as vibrant as AMOLED, but it's all perfectly fine, and Gorilla Glass 5 affords some protection against bumps and spills. 

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 750G 5G is a mid-range chipset that helps the Fairphone 4 5G deliver respectable Geekbench 5 CPU scores of 639 (single core) and 1877 (multicore). By way of comparison, cutting-edge Android handsets score around 1000 and 3000 respectively. 

The Fairphone 4 5G runs on Android 11 with no third-party shopping, entertainment or productivity apps, and no games. The one addition to the Android suite is a Fairphone app. When accessing this for the first time you can opt to send analytics and receive surveys, after which you can access user guides and tips as well as learning more about Fairphone as an organisation. This information is rather sparse, and could do with beefing up.   

In another move to extend the lifetime of this handset, Fairphone says it will provide software support until the end of 2025, including upgrades to Android 12 and Android 13. The company also aims to extend this to the end of 2027 with upgrades to Android 14 and Android 15, even though support from the chipset supplier will have expired. 

The Fairphone 4 5G has two rear cameras, both with 48MP sensors: one is an f/1.6 wide-angle camera with 8x digital zoom, while the other is an f/2.2 ultra-wide angle unit with a 120-degree field of view. The selfie camera, which lives in a teardrop-shaped notch in the screen, is a 25MP f/2.2 shooter with 8x digital zoom.  

SEE: Our old devices are creating a mountain of e-waste. And it's getting a lot bigger

Image quality across the board is best described as 'serviceable', but no more. Even with optical image stabilisation (OIS) on the main camera I found a steady hand was needed to avoid blurring, and taking sharp cat photos was very tricky unless the feline was asleep. Low light scenes were disappointing and the camera software is limited, with slow-mo, time lapse and panorama modes on offer, but little else. 

The 3905mAh battery is good for 200 hours while idle and 13 hours of phone calls, according to Fairphone. The PCMark for Android Work 3.0 battery life test saw it keep going for 15 hours and 7 minutes. After playing YouTube video from a full charge for three hours it had fallen by 28%, suggesting battery life of around 11 hours. 

There is no fast-charging capability here. With no adapter or USB cable in the box, I raided my collection and, with the battery at 31%, started to charge. After 15 minutes the battery had risen to 41%, after 30 minutes it was at 53%, and after 45 minutes it had got to 65%. 

Conclusions 

The Fairphone 4 5G is a perfectly serviceable mid-range smartphone, albeit one that can't compete with the rest of the market in terms of specs for the price. But that's not the game this phone is playing: Fairphone gives ethical consumers somewhere to go, and that has to be a good thing. 

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